D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said 30,000 people were trying to use the online system Friday as appointments became available.
Responding to an email from a frustrated constituent, D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said that when tens of thousands of people clicked on the link at once while vying for a small number of spots, “the volume is what overwhelmed the system today.”
“This approach is a mess and creating so much frustration,” Allen wrote to the resident. “You have every right to be angry and disappointed in the system they’re using.”
The frustration is a sample of the red tape residents are having to cut through in a quest to get coveted vaccine shots. D.C. officials pledged to overhaul the registration website and transition to a system that can handle the volume of residents seeking appointments.
Some council members noted that an online makeover could eliminate technical difficulties but won’t solve the core problem: Demand for the vaccines far outpaces supply — a regionwide issue that has rankled officials and residents alike since vaccine doses became available in December.
“I know some folks think this is as hard as getting Beyoncé tickets or Hamilton tickets. But until our supply increases, that is going to be our reality,” said D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large). Even with a better website, “We would still have thousands of people who were upset that they didn’t get one of the 4,300 appointments open today.”
More than 100,000 D.C. adults have qualifying medical conditions — a list that includes obesity, pregnancy, cancer and diabetes — and this week was their first chance to sign up for vaccines.
On Friday morning, some users repeatedly were told that the captcha codes they typed in were incorrect, even when they matched the digits on the screen. Some were asked to log in to a nonexistent account. Many saw a variety of system error messages.
By phone, some people got appointments but others couldn’t connect at all, or reached operators who told them the system was malfunctioning and couldn’t book appointments.
At 9 a.m. Saturday, 3,500 appointments will open for residents of certain Zip codes, mostly in wards 5, 7 and 8. Subsequently, the city will open the system again every Thursday and Friday, at least until it replaces the current vaccine website with a new system it has promised will be operational in the coming weeks.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said the city would continue making more vaccine appointments available as federal supply allowed.
“We know how stressful of a time this is, and we appreciate your patience as we work together to get Washingtonians across all eight wards vaccinated,” the mayor said in a statement after announcing that all the Friday spots had been taken. “Currently demand for the vaccine in D.C. is much higher than the supply we are receiving from the federal government.”
Henderson said she contacted the Office of the Chief Technology Officer on Friday to understand what went wrong and how the city could improve residents’ experience using the website until a new system debuts in a few weeks. The new system will alleviate many problems, she said, by sending preregistered residents a personal link to sign up for their appointment when their turn arrives.
The current system asks them to scramble repeatedly for slots until the day they luck into one.
“We need some type of Band-Aid until you get to a place of rolling out this new website, because it really isn’t working for people,” Henderson said. “It is highly unacceptable that two days in a row we’ve had this issue and had these significant problems.”
The city’s health department had considered opening appointments this week only to people with health problems who are older than 50 — rather than to all adults with health problems — to keep the volume of requests more manageable. After complaints from young cancer patients and people with disabilities, which some council members echoed, the health department agreed to open it to all adults with qualifying health problems at the same time.
Allen joined D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) in calling for the city’s website to accept registrations only from people with qualifying health conditions who are older than 50 to alleviate some of the crush. Both council members said hospitals and health clinics could continue offering vaccines to younger people with health problems.
What’s most needed, Allen said, is a more efficient preregistration system to replace the daily scramble to grab an open slot.
“This weekly competition where 90 percent of people are not going to get the appointment they’re seeking is leading to anger and frustration,” he said. “If we’re going to have more than 30,000 people trying to get 4,000 doses, the math on that is not going to work.”
He said city engineers were investigating the cause of some of the different error messages that users encountered Friday.
The region on Friday continued to see a decline in new coronavirus cases. The greater Washington region added 2,789 infections as the overall case number lurched toward 1 million since the novel coronavirus was detected in the area. Daily caseloads have fallen in Virginia and Maryland by 19 and 9 percent, respectively, since last week, but D.C. experienced a 4 percent increase.
Meanwhile, Virginia continues to deal with glitches in its online system but in a way different from D.C.’s problems: For weeks, its software had not properly been flagging new deaths, leading the state to report a large backlog of 234 fatalities Friday, the most in a single day since the pandemic began.
Lilian Peake, the state health department’s chief epidemiologist, said that starting in January, Virginia’s automated system had not been flagging every coronavirus death.
Peake said state officials realized there was a problem in the system when the data showed that deaths — which are a lagging indicator in the spread of the virus — were not reflecting the record surge of new cases that followed the winter holidays.
“When we saw the deaths flattening out, we knew something was wrong,” Peake said.
State health officials are backfilling the unrecorded deaths, which resulted in a sharp spike in numbers this week, she said.
The process, which involves manually reviewing death certificates, could take another week depending on how many new virus deaths occur, she said.
Peake said a more accurate reflection of the trend in fatalities is counting according to the date that deaths occurred, instead of when they were recorded. On Friday, that metric showed the seven-day average for deaths per day has been steadily dropping from a late-January peak.